Although I don’t believe there is anything close to a good case to be made for Islam or against Christianity, every once in a while I like to remind a certain Muslim dawagandist just how much efforts to defend Islam and refute Christianity are better left by him to others. The longer he persists in trying to be an apologist for Islam the less he is doing anything that could be considered good even if one adopts the misguided perspective of his false prophet which he delivered in the name of a false god. The reason for this is simple: more often than not, when this dawagandist departs from his preferred approach of attacking and slandering Christians and actually tries to mount an argument, he ends up shooting the very platform on which he is standing.
Not content with previous efforts at undermining his credibility as an apologist, he decided to take one of his occasional romps out of his comfort zone of gossip and slander into the area of historical apologetics. His recent appearance in this arena involves an attack on “Trinitarian Christians” for corrupting one of the important evidences for the historical existence of Jesus. According to him, “Trinitarian Christians” are guilty of corrupting the account of the first century Jewish historian Josephus, who was, among other things, an eyewitness to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans.
In various places in his writings Josephus makes mention of both John the Baptist and James the Lord’s half-brother. Josephus’ remarks about John the Baptist are not questioned by historical scholars, and his remarks about James are questioned by very few. However, and this is where our Muslim friend renders a disservice both to himself and his prophet, he brings up the famous Testimonium Flavianum, a portion of Josephus that, admittedly, has been debated by scholars. The passage in Josephus reads as follows:
"At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was a doer of amazing deeds, a teacher of persons who receive the truth with pleasure. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Messiah. And when Pilate condemned him to the cross, the leading me among us having accused him, those who loved him from the first did not cease to do so. For he appeared to them the third day alive again, the divine prophets having spoken these things and a myriad of other marvels concerning him. And to the present the tribe of Christians, named after this person, has not disappeared." (Ant. 18.3.3)
Scholars have taken three basic approaches to this portion of Josephus: 1) the passage is entirely spurious; 2) the passage is entirely authentic; and 3) the passage is partly authentic and partly inauthentic.
By far and away, historical scholars take the third option. A few of the reasons why most scholars do not reject the entirety of the passage as inauthentic or entirely a product of Christian hands can be given here.
In the first place, a number of the statements that appear in the Testimonium Flavianum are not characteristically Christian forms of expression or ways of speaking about Jesus. For example, although Christians believe that Jesus was/is, as He Himself said, “Greater than Solomon”, calling him “a wise man” is not a way that the early Christians did or would be expected to refer to Jesus, their Lord (and ours). Early Christians also did not refer to themselves as “the tribe of Christians”, a fact that once again points away from the idea that a Christian is responsible for at least this portion of the passage. A second observation that inclines scholars away from understanding the entire passage to be the product of Christian tampering comes from a later reference to Jesus in Josephus, a reference scholars do not contest. The way the later passage in question is worded presupposes an earlier mention of Jesus by Josephus, and the Testimonium is the only candidate for such an earlier reference.
More could be said in favor of the fact that the passage cannot be written off in its entirety as being from Josephus, but the scholarly work on this is so well known, widely spread, and easily accessible that this would be an unnecessary waste of time, especially in the present context and the real reason I have for bringing all of this up. The actual reason for bringing this up derives from one of the MAIN reasons that scholars have for saying that the passage contains at least some Christian interpolations. Just how my Muslim friend missed the significance of this and walked right into an incredibly embarrassing situation is truly beyond me, though I guess I shouldn’t have put it past him. Here is the list of reasons as it was provided by this Muslim:
"The principle arguments against the genuineness of the account in the Jewish Antiqiuities are as follows:
(i) The Jewish Josephus could not have described Isa [Jesus] as al-Masih [Messiah]
(ii) While the bishop and historian Eusebius of Caesarea (d. ca. 340 CE) mentions the controversial passage, the Greek theologian Origen (ca. 185-254 CE) had expressly stated that Josephus did not believe Isa [Jesus] to be al-Masih;
and finally (iii) The suspicious passage breaks continuity of Josephus’ description of a series of riots (Feldman, 1965:49)" (Emphasis original)
To this I want to give as loud and emphatic an “AMEN” as I possibly can: Josephus, as scholars agree, in so far as he was a Jew and not a Christian, “could NOT have described Isa [Jesus] as al-Masih [Messiah].”
And that, noble readers, is why we not only must understand that the text of Josephus at this point cannot be entirely the product of his hand; it is also one of the MANY reasons why we must reject the Qur’an as the Word of God, for it contains just such an obvious and glaring error – or should I say “interpolation”? – as even our Muslim friend admits in the above case. It does this when it attributes the following statement to those first century Jews who rejected Jesus: “Surely we have killed THE MESSIAH [al-Masih], Isa the Son of Marium, THE MESSENGER of Allah” (S. 4:157). The simple fact of the matter is, unbelieving first century Jews “could not have described Isa [Jesus] as al-Masih [Messiah],” and therefore the so-called “perfectly preserved Qur’an” has perfectly preserved for us one of the many errors of the Allah of the Qur’an and his only messenger – Muhammad.
In light of this I must once again appeal to this Muslim to consider hanging up his apologetic hat. "If the hat doesn't fit, you ought to quit."
For more on this, see here:
It looks like my earlier blog post found here did not go over well with my Muslim friend. It also appears my plea fell on deaf ears and he has decided not to take off that old silk hat of his, even though it doesn’t fit and the magic has long since run out.
One of his complaints is that I focused on only one of the issues dealt with in his blog post, but it was to his own benefit that I only narrowed in on one of his errors rather than all of them. As I will show, his complaint here is like that of a convicted murderer objecting to the fact that he was not also brought up on rape charges for raping a woman on the same day he committed first degree murder.
Before coming to the other issue he is anxious to be refuted on, I need to return to the original problem that I addressed in my post, a problem he desperately tried to disentangle himself from but only managed to get himself more tied up.
Here is the problem in a nutshell:
1) The Testimonium Flavianum (hereafter, TF) is not considered by most scholars to be a pure, unadulterated statement of Josephus free of any mishandling by some Christian(s), whether this is attributable to an accidental scribal gloss or is due to some nefarious reason(s). The basis on which most scholars suspect a Christian interpolation into TF is because it calls Jesus "the Messiah", which Josephus would not have done since he was a non-Christian Jew.
2) Surah 4:157 in the Qur’an attributes a statement to those first century Jews who rejected Jesus that would likewise have to be rejected as either an interpolation into the Qur’an or a bald-faced error on the part of the original author(s), if the above reasoning is granted as valid. That is, since first century Jews would not have boasted that they killed Isa “the Messiah” and “the messenger of God”, for the very obvious reason that they desired his death precisely because they rejected his claim to be the Messiah, this verse as it exists in the present day Uthmanic recension of the Qur’an must be rejected as an error.
In response to this, he replied as follows:
“I suppose the thought of context left his [Anthony Rogers – AR] mind as he appealed to Quran 4:157. Did he ever stop to think the Jews could have appended those titles to Jesus out of sarcasm as a form of mockery or the titles are due to paraphrasing from the Author (God)? The sarcasm point is similar to the passage where Jesus was allegedly mocked in Mark 15:16-20 with the title of “king of the Jews”.”
Since he never tells us himself just what the context offers us to help clarify the meaning of this verse, it is hard to know what it was that supposedly left my mind as I read the verse. And since he says the Jews “could have” given those titles to Jesus out of sarcasm, it is also apparent that the context did not clearly settle the matter for him either. In fact, he even goes on to give a second possibility in the same sentence when he says the author of this verse could have been “paraphrasing” the Jews. So which is it? Does the context clearly point to the fact that the Jews were being sarcastic? Or does it clearly point to the fact that Allah was simply paraphrasing the Jews? Apparently the necessary context to make it clear that either of these meanings was intended left the mind of the author who penned them, leaving future generations of readers in the precarious situation of trying to make heads or tails of the verse and no other option but flipping a coin to settle the controversy.
In support of the idea that the Jews could have engaged in sarcasm, though the Qur’an does not clearly say this and the context does not indicate it either, he points to the fact that “Jesus was allegedly mocked in Mark 15:16-20 with the title ‘king of the Jews’”. The mistakes involved in drawing this comparison to Mark’s gospel are stark. In the first place, Mark 15:20 is talking about the Romans rather than the Jews. Second, the passage explicitly says they said this in mockery: “And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the purple cloak…” On the other hand, neither the immediate passage nor the broader context of Surah 4:157 say anything of the sort. And that’s why not all Muslims hold this interpretation. In fact, they have many more interpretations on offer than the two dogmatically asserted by My Muslim friend. Given that the text of the Bible is sufficiently detailed and clear on this point while the text of the Qur’an is not, we also have to smart from the fact that this Muslim would say the Jews “allegedly” mocked Jesus. The only thing that we may fairly say is being alleged here is that the Quranic statement compares to the Biblical one when it clearly does not, at least as far as the issue of clarity goes. Moreover, some translations of the Qur’an even suggest the very opposite of this view, such as Yusuf Ali’s translation which parenthetically adds the words “in boast”, which shows that on his reading of the verse the Jews were not mocking but actually boasting when they said this. Couldn’t the “allegedly” omniscient author of the Qur’an see that the way he communicated this event might suggest to people that the Jews were not being sarcastic as we see in the case of Yusuf Ali? Or couldn’t the allegedly omniscient author of what boasts to be the world’s most eloquent book have spoken more clearly and explicitly said “mockery” so that those who follow him would not be left to cast about for explanations and fall all over each other in the process?
It is just because the verse does not clearly indicate that the Jews were saying this in mockery that my Muslim friend turns around and says Allah could have simply been paraphrasing what the Jews said. On top of the fact that this exposes the error of pretending that this passage somehow clearly shows in context that the Jews were mocking, the idea that Allah was paraphrasing the Jews is also problematic. The very idea of a paraphrase is to communicate the gist of something in roughly approximate language. But how is putting a statement in the mouths of Jews that they wouldn’t have spoken approximate what they could have said? To suggest such a thing is laughable, but perhaps my Muslim friend is just engaging in a little mockery and is pulling my chain when he pretends that he is actually offering well-thought out, problem free explanations of what is going on in Surah 4:157. In fact, I wonder if he would mind if I paraphrase him in a way that inaccurately expresses his actual position in the way he says his god did in S. 4:157.
Unmindful of my aim in the blog post – which was to show that the very reasoning this Muslim appealed to in order to argue that Christians added things to TF, and that this is a good illustration of one of the many problems with Surah 4:157 – this Muslim objects to the fact that I did not deal with his point that an interpolation among the handlers of Josephus writings at one point shows that some scribe was dishonest. He says:
“Even if Jews sincerely called Jesus by such titles [in 4:157] it would have NO bearing upon the blog post as it simply repeats one of the reasons as to why the critics doubt the passage in Josephus was interpolated whilst travelling in a culture of dishonesty amongst the scribes. I guess this was lost on Mr Rogers.”
It might have no bearing on the point of his post, but why should that matter to me? So I had a different point in mind when I used something this Muslim said in the process of arguing against the authenticity of TF. Big deal. How is this helpful to him and other Muslims? He was arguing against the authenticity of Josephus, and I was using his argument to refute the Qur’an. This means at best his argument shows a problem in the transmission of Josephus, while my argument on the other hand points up a problem in the Qur’an. As I see it, this is a great trade off. I was minded to freely give him the point of his post, which was that Jospehus was partially corrupted for the reasons he appealed to, and to be consistent that means he has to give me the error or corruption of the Qur’an on the basis of the same reasons. In other words, I freely granted that he has a pair of twos; now consistency demands that he realize I have a royal flush.
Although it wasn’t my intention to address his concern that Josephus was mishandled, since he is hopping up and down about it I would simply point out that scholars, even though we have an incredibly impoverished manuscript tradition for Josephus as compared to the Bible, still believe they can, with some degree of confidence, by comparing and collating manuscripts (such as Greek, Slavonic, and Arabic texts of Josephus) and through the application of critical thinking and a sound methodology, determine what Josephus would have said. In fact, such reconstructions have been offered by a number of scholars, including one of the scholars this Muslim favors and often quotes in other contexts: Geza Vermes.
As for the charge of dishonesty on the part of later scribes, at best this Muslim has only shown that someone along the way was dishonest, not that there was “a culture of dishonesty”. But of course he didn’t even prove or even so much as argue that someone was dishonest; he merely asserted this, nothing more. The fact of the matter is there may be another explanation for how the change occurred, such as a marginal comment that was accidentally copied by a later scribe as if it were part of the original text, a mistake that often occurred in hand written manuscripts.
This brings us, finally, to the other issue that this Muslim complained about that I did not address, i.e. the fact that Josephus did not report anything about the slaughter of the innocents. According to him, this is supposed to show that the slaughter of the innocents reported in Matthew’s account of the Gospel did not actually take place.
“-Anthony, you failed to adequately cover the main point to the post; why did Josephus fail to mention Herod’s massacre of young boys despite chronicling Herod’s brutal history.”
Several things may be said in response to this argument from silence:
At no point in Josephus’ writings does he say anywhere that he aims to be exhaustive. In fact, by comparing Antiquities of the Jews to Jewish War, we see that Josephus mentions things in the one work that he doesn’t mention in the other. It is evident from this that Josephus was not aiming to be exhaustive in either one.
This is not only true in a general sense; it is particularly true when it comes to Josephus' account of Herod. In one place in Antiquities, Josephus says:
"And since Herod had now the government of all Judea put into his hands, he promoted such of the private men in the city as had been of his party, but never left off avenging and punishing every day those that had chosen to be of the party of his enemies." (Antiquities Of The Jews, 15:1)
But Josephus does not tell us each and every act of punishment that Herod inflicted on his enemies every day. This is a clear indication that Josephus was not trying to be exhaustive even when it comes to the history of Herod.
Worse still, there are events from the time period that Josephus does not record that we know about from other sources. For example, we know from other historical sources that Herod persecuted and repressed the wilderness Essenes, but Josephus makes no mention of this.
When we put all of this together, what we have is this. In the first place, Josephus did not aim to be exhaustive in everything that he recounted. Second, we know that Josephus did not aim at or achieve an exhaustive account of the person and acts of Herod. Third, we have a specific example of something Herod did that Josephus did not recount. Given all of this, can anyone seriously argue that an event, such as the slaughter of the innocents reported in Matthew, did not take place just because Josephus does not report it? Obviously not.
Many more things could be mentioned, but this post has already become quite long and the above is more than adequate to remind my Muslim friend why the apologetic task is best left to others. In trying to argue for Islam and against Christianity, he has not given us any cogent reason to reject or doubt the latter, and in the process has given us good reason to reject the Qur’anic claim to be clear, exhaustively detailed, and without error. Worst of all, we learn all of this by a comparison of his own reasoning with the very verse that accuses those who believe in the crucifixion of Christ of having no certain knowledge about what actually happened and of being full of conjecture and doubt. If my Muslim interlocutor has shown anything, he has shown that he can’t defend against the error of S. 4:157 without showing in the process that he does not really know what is going on at this point in the passage and therefore has to engage in conjecture, and these very conjectures themselves are open to many serious objections, including the objection that S. 4:157 is supposed to dispel all such conjecture on his part.
Although it won’t be a continuation of this article, many more errors and/or ambiguities in Surah 4:157 will be mentioned in future posts. Of course if my Muslim friend wants to further entangle himself and try to respond to the above, then I will happily continue this discussion as well.
Some arguments in this vein were already made in a previous post, others were not repeated. Hence, the reader is encouraged to read the earlier article, found here: The Qur’an: A Book Full of Conjecture and Doubt
See also a post done by David a long time ago on this verse: The Irony of the Qur’an–Surah 4:157-158
Sam Shamoun has also written on this general subject:
And the latter article in particular from Sam contains a section towards the end addressing the claim that the Jews were mocking or being sarcastic in S. 4:157.